If what you’re looking for is a map of Ireland, the fiction of Edna O’Brien will do just fine. Now in the first year of her ninth decade, O’Brien has been writing about her native land for half a century — her celebrated first novel, “The Country Girls,” was published in 1960 — and has laid a claim on it that is as strong as the ones staked by the likes of James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Sean O’Casey and Elizabeth Bowen, to name only four of the innumerable brilliant writers born in that beautiful, troubled, haunting place. Though perhaps the dominant theme in her work is what she calls “how inexplicable love was,” she is also possessed by a love for Ireland and a deep knowledge of its history, legend and character.
Like the grandmother in her fine new story “Inner Cowboy,” O’Brien is drawn to “the olden days, when shops were drapery and grocery and hardware all in one,” but in this story as elsewhere in “Saints and Sinners” there is a new Ireland, one that she ferociously dislikes. This is the Ireland of the 2000s and the Celtic Tiger, the mad boom that made the country momentarily the envy of almost every other nation on earth and then plunged it into chaos and recrimination that will plague it for decades.
By far the best nonfiction account of this phenomenon is “Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger,” published a year ago by the superb columnist of the Irish Times Fintan O’Toole. It is a ferociously angry book — and at times a very funny one — and a similar anger is to be found in “Saints and Sinners.” Curly, the protagonist of “Inner Cowboy,” talks to a gardener with whom he occasionally works. He “said rich bastards were ruining Ireland, poisoning it, the McSorley brothers and their ilk grabbing, buying up every perch of farm, bog, and quarry they could get their hands on.” One of those brothers is Daragh McSorley: “No one knows the scope of his ambition, the passion, the relentless unrest.” He “was famous for the loud laugh that had little mirth in it,” and “as for bad feeling, there was so much bad feeling vented on him that he could bottle it and sell it like holy water.”
“Greed,” a priest says at the end of this story, “was ruining the country, people no longer showed the compassion that they once had.” A variation on the theme is played in another exceptionally fine story, “Send My Roots Rain.” A librarian is waiting in a Dublin hotel lounge to meet a famous poet:
“She began imagining things they might talk about at first, the changes that had occurred in their country, changes that were not for the better, bulldozers everywhere and the craze for money. Money, money, money. The rich going to lunch in their helicopters, chopping the air and shredding the white mist, their wives outdoing each other with jewelry and finery, stirring their champagne with gold swizzle sticks, and Mrs. Jamieson boasting about their drapes from the palazzo of a gentleman in Milan and a tea set shipped from Virginia that had once belonged to a president of the United States. Pictures on their walls of bog and bogland, where they no longer set foot, priceless pictures of these lonesome and beautiful landscapes and pictures of bog lilies that lay like serrated stars on pools of purple-black bog water. . . . That little hussy who sued the Church Fathers because the sleeve of her coat singed as she was lighting a candle actually employed the family solicitor to press for compensation and he did, egging her on, encouraging her in this rotten ploy.”
One of the oddities of the Celtic Tiger was that for a few years a basic pattern of Irish history was reversed. For almost as long as there has been work to be found elsewhere, the Irish have left their native land to seek it, but during the boom years, people actually immigrated from other places — Eastern Europe in particular — to take jobs and start new lives in Ireland. By late last year, though, reports indicated that old patterns of emigration from Ireland were beginning to reassert themselves. Obviously, O’Brien wrote the first of the 11 stories in this collection, “Shovel Kings,”before that occurred, but it vividly and poignantly depicts the lives of men who have moved to England to find hard manual labor as shovelers on various projects.
Chief among them is a man named Rafferty. He meets the narrator, a woman unidentified by name or age, in a pub and begins a series of friendly conversations with her. He “began to tell me the story of coming to London forty years earlier, a young lad of fifteen arriving in Camden Town with his father and thinking that it was the strangest, sootiest place he had ever seen, that even the birds, the fat pigeons that waddled about, were man-made.” He and his father “were driven a few miles north to where a group of young men were digging a long trench, for the electricity cables to be put in later on.”Thus Rafferty sets off on a life in exile. “At his first sight of it, it was hard for him, as he said, not to imagine those men, young though they were, destined for all eternity to be kept digging some never-ending grave.” When last we see Rafferty, a friend says of him, “He doesn’t belong in England and ditto Ireland,” and, “tapping his temple to emphasize his meaning, added that exile is in the mind and there’s no cure for that.” Now as in the past, this ailment is an essential part of the Irish soul.
Other familiar and essential Irish themes appear elsewhere in these stories. “Green Georgette” is about class resentments as seen through the eyes of a girl who is taken by her mother to visit the oh-so-grand wife of a local banker: “Mixed in with my longing was a mounting rage. Our lives seemed so drab, so uneventful. I prayed for drastic things to occur — for the bullocks to rise up and mutiny, then gore one another, for my father to die in his sleep, for our school to catch fire, and for Mr. Coughlan to take a pistol and shoot his wife, before shooting himself.”
In “Plunder” and “Black Flower,” O’Brien explores the terrible price Ireland and individual Irish have paid for the Troubles between Catholics and Protestants. Both stories are powerful and, in their different ways, heartbreaking. But then O’Brien is an absolute ace when it comes to breaking hearts. For half a century she has written some of the most evocative prose in the English language, in books that now run to a total of 26. One of the stories here, “Manhattan Medley,” is quintessential O’Brien. A woman visiting New York writes a love letter in her mind to a man, a famous architect, a letter that ends: “Not to go to you is to precipitate the dark, and yet I hesitate. It is not that I do not crave the light — rather it is the certainty of the eventual dark.” This knowledge is at the heart of almost everything O’Brien writes. Her people long for love and savor it when they have it, but always there is the fear that it is as evanescent as the lovers themselves. She is a brilliantly gifted and accomplished writer, and a sympathetic but unflinching observer of the human condition.